Friday, June 28, 2019


Before I continue with tales of our thrilling adventures in Napa, let me pause for a digression about the thrilling adventures of the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. -- the episode that aired a week ago. It was an episode centered on Fitz and Simmons, and as has often been the case when the series focuses on these two, it was an excellent installment.

Imprisoned by the Chronicoms in a machine that links their minds together, Fitz and Simmons are being forced to crack the secrets of time travel. But as the machine was designed for emotionless beings, there are unanticipated side effects. Before the two can even think about approaching the problem, they must dig into the darker side of their own relationship, and the secrets Simmons had hoped to not yet share with Fitz.

This a very cleverly constructed script that accomplishes a lot in a very short amount of time. Foremost, it takes the job of filling in Fitz on everything he missed during the previous season in a way that transcends boring exposition. Instead of receiving the information in conversation, he gets to step inside a memory and see it. What's more, the memories are ones we the audience weren't shown before. Together, it all takes a necessary story element that could have been very passive and turns it into something quite active.

Also smart is how the full cast was utilized in this episode. It's a story all in the minds of Fitz and Simmons, but many of the other characters are incorporated in natural ways. We got meaningful moments for Daisy and Mack, and not one but two scenes with Phil Coulson (the genuine article). Seeing Coulson again isn't just emotional for the characters, but it affects the audience too. The character is really gone now, even if actor Clark Gregg isn't, and so it means something extra when we see him again (as we did in May's memories a week earlier).

Perhaps most clever of all, the script acknowledged the dark undercurrents within the FitzSimmons relationship. Indeed, it was all about that. We'd seen the darker side of Fitz before; that's what came out in the Framework, and that's what returned now. But it was equally compelling to see what sorts of negative emotions Simmons is boxing up to present the mostly bubbling personality we normally get -- and it made sense.

Elizabeth Henstridge and Iain De Caestecker took the great material on the page and brought it to life with great performances. The acting challenges were numerous and varied. They had to live the emotional arc of another huge test in their relationship, going from a marriage proposal to a full-bore fight to an ultimate reconciliation all in the course of an hour. They each had to play younger versions of their characters, and slip back in forth between living in a memory and conversing in the present, honoring the emotional truth of both parts of the scene. Then they had to play their dark mirror personalities, the psychopathic Leopold and the new creepy-as-The-Ring dark version of Simmons. Each aspect of the performance was excellent work by both, separately and together.

It was, by far, the strongest episode of this season. It took a breath from strategically withholding plot from us and told a strong story about the characters that made an impact. I give the episode an A-. It's great to know the series still has this capability, and gives me encouragement for the rest of the season.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Wine Time

On Tuesday, I got home from a six-day vacation to Napa Valley. This was a little bit of a return trip for me and my husband -- we went to San Francisco eight years ago, spending one day at Yosemite and one day in Napa Valley, but with the bulk of our time in the city itself. This trip was focused on wine country, with us renting a guest house in the town of Napa and centering our explorations from there.

We went with two good friends we've been talking about traveling with for years. It finally happened -- we have the pictures to prove it (boy, do we), and we managed not to get too drunk on wine to forget it. But even though wines and Napa were the centerpiece, we did start out in San Francisco early in the morning, for a sort of "greatest hits," the city in a couple hours sort of tour.

We drove down to Fisherman's Wharf for a short walk around. We nibbled on sourdough bread and went to look at the sea lions at Pier 39 (not too crowded so early in the day). We marveled anew at the steepness of the San Francisco streets, and drove down the famously crooked and picturesque Lombard Street (in the day this time; previously, we'd done it at night).

We left the city via the Golden Gate Bridge, and our friends suggested that before we set out for Napa, we find "that place" that's supposed to offer a great view on the other side. The Marin Headlands, I remembered. This too was a spot we'd only visited at night on the previous trip. Well, just past sundown. And, well... not quite, as it turns out. There are a few lookout points in the area, and somehow when we'd been there years ago, we'd missed the most famous and picturesque one. That would be this:

We found it this time, and it was beautiful.

From there, it was on up to Napa Valley, via the southern end of Sonoma Valley. It was still on the early side a bit for reaching our house, so in Sonoma we made our first wine stop at a place called Scribe Winery. We'd go to many behemoth wineries over the next few days, but this place was a quieter and smaller spot that was really the perfect introduction to being on vacation. It was so relaxing, in fact, that I forgot to snap a single picture of it. It was a simple-looking house with south-of-the-border architecture and a big patio. The latter is where we sat in the sun, enjoying charcuterie and sampling our first wine of the trip.

After checking into our house, we decided to head back out for one more wine stop. This time, it was to one of the larger places, V. Sattui. They had a market where you were encouraged to buy various meats, cheeses, and breads to do your own picnic. We picked up some that we would stash back in the refrigerator at our house rather than eat there on the spot, but we did enjoy a wine tasting guided by "Big Ed." (Seriously. He introduced himself that way. And it was a fitting moniker.) This was our first sample of a particular sales technique we'd get at a few places during the trip: pretend you're doing something "wrong" by giving us a couple of extra and/or more exclusive samples. (It kind of works.)

This early in the trip, I was sticking more to styles of wine I previously knew I enjoyed, so I chased a couple of whites with some sweet dessert wines -- and ended up bringing back a bottle of "Madeira wine" (not actually from the Madeira islands) to sip on for months to come here at home. We finished up the night trying to find something along the lines of a burger place, but wound up at more of a fancy bistro. (And then restating our intentions to cook a couple of dinners while we were there, taking advantage of having a kitchen.)

It was a long day, but I felt energized all the way through until almost the very end. A great sign of good times to come.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

DS9 Flashback: The Abandoned

After directing one of the stronger episodes of Deep Space Nine's second season, star Avery Brooks was given several more chances to direct in the third season. The first of those was "The Abandoned."

Quark buys the wreckage of an unknown ship and winds up with more than he bargained for, finding a baby inside a stasis pod. But the magnitude of this discovery escalates in short order -- it's a Jem'Hadar infant who rapidly matures to adolescence. Driven by sympathy for the isolated youth, Odo tries to build a rapport using the Jem'Hadar's innate deference to the shapeshifter. But nurture may not be able to overcome nature. Meanwhile, Sisko finally gets to have dinner with his son's girlfriend -- a worldly dabo girl several years older than Jake.

I didn't necessarily have the strongest feelings about this episode when I watched it during the series' original run. It struck me as something of a rehash of The Next Generation's "I Borg": the heroes find an isolated member of an enemy species and must learn to recognize its inherent "humanity." This seemed a less compelling rehash, too; compared to Picard's intensely personal stakes where the Borg are concerned, Odo's interest here doesn't seem as important. Yes, he sympathizes with being an "orphan" raised in a lab. Yes, he wants to prove this Jem'Hadar can be raised differently, as a way of demonstrating that he himself is different from his own people. But it's a more intellectual, less visceral source of emotion than the one woven into "I Borg."

Avery Brooks saw more in the story, however, and brought that perspective to the way he directed it. It's an angle I was able to notice and appreciate more, watching it again more recently. "For me," said Brooks in one interview, "it was very much a story about young brown men, and, to some extent, a story about a society that is responsible for the creation of a generation of young men who are feared, who are addicted, who are potential killers." He saw a metaphor here for racism, for a lack of upward mobility, and this infuses the story with some of the more personal stakes I didn't see when I was just comparing it to "I Borg."

Odo really tries to turn this Jem'Hadar youth away from violence. He tries being an adoptive father to the boy. They smile creepily together. It means so much to Odo that he's willing to abandon everything and run away with the boy. But unlike "I Borg," which ends by showing that a Borg can be turned from its nature, here we see that this Jem'Hadar cannot be. It's an outcome fixed from the moment Odo allows the youth to fight in a holosuite -- an error in judgment Kira identifies immediately (and for which Odo must later admit she was right). In the metaphor Avery Brooks was building as a director, this youth may have had an advocate, but no true way out of the violence destined for him before he was even born.

Not coincidentally, the B plot of this episode focuses on an opposite relationship -- the very healthy one between Ben and Jake Sisko. Ben shows his love of family throughout, playing with the Jem'Hadar infant with a huge smile on his face, pining for when Jake was younger and it was so easy to make him happy, and looking to protect his son from a relationship he suspects might not be appropriate.

The age gap between Mardah and Jake doesn't seem as big as the script makes it out to be. For one thing, actor Cirroc Lofton shot up like a weed in his adolescence, and carries himself with adult confidence on screen. For another thing, Jake is written here to be incredibly smooth for a teenager, never getting tongue-tied, and seemingly brought out of his shell by his older girlfriend. Sisko goes into dinner admitting "I don't want to like her," but by the end of a very fun scene, he wants her to tell him all about "my poet hustler son." It's really a good arc, and Mardah is quite a fun character. (It's a shame that, after she was talked up for half a season before this, this is actually the only time she ever appears in an episode.)

Other observations:
  • Odo gets quarters for the first time in this episode, and Kira brings him a housewarming gift in a fun scene. It's a great example of the Deep Space Nine writers allowing their characters to change and grow more than the characters of past Star Trek series.
  • This episode establishes the Jem'Hadar dependence on ketracel-white -- though the substance isn't actually given a name here. The genetically engineered addiction is a "cold blooded" move by the Founders, according to O'Brien. Odo wryly notes that his people don't have blood.
  • It might have been interesting to see this particular Jem'Hadar return in some later episode, to see the consequences of letting him go free. On the other hand, ever bringing back any Jem'Hadar for a repeat appearance would have compromised their narrative function as faceless shock troops. 
I liked this episode better this time around than I had before. I'd give "The Abandoned" a B. I still don't think it's among the best of season three, but it's a fairly solid installment of the series.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Wing It

The board game Wingspan was only released this year, yet it has already soared (ha!) to the Top 50 on BoardGameGeek. Fortunately, this is a fact I was unaware of before playing it for the first time. Fortunately, because while it is a decent game (and very good looking), I'm not sure it would have lived up to those sky-high (ha!) expectations, had I brought them with me to the game table.

In Wingspan, each player is cultivating a nature preserve, trying to attract a variety of birds to score points. In mechanics, it's an engine-building game that revolves around gathering resources and drafting cards. You use each of your turns to take one action -- selecting from an array of face-up bird cards to add to your hand, gathering food (in five different types) that you'll ultimately need to play a new bird card, or taking egg tokens (also needed to "hatch" new birds).

Each player has a tableau in front of them, three rows by five columns. Each row relates to one of those three core actions, and gets filled by cards from one of three different categories of bird (though some birds belong to more than one category). Columns are filled left to right, and as you play birds, you unlock better versions of the game's core actions: you'll collect more food with one type of bird, draw more cards with another, or hatch more eggs with the third.

Bird cards themselves also have game text. Some trigger effects when you play them. Others have reusable powers that occur each time you take the action tied to their row. Still others are triggered once each round when an opponent takes a specified action. It's the last two categories that gives Wingspan its engine-like gameplay -- piling on free bonuses to basic actions allows you to get much more done, much more quickly.

There are a large number of bird cards with a wide variety of abilities that play around within the game's core rules set. From this huge deck, you can create a number of satisfying card combos -- to an extent that you get a sensation not unlike a deck-building game when you play. But it's also a game that requires advanced planning. With one action on each of your turns, and a fixed number of turns across four phases of the game, you need to plan in advance. You'll take exactly 26 actions before the game is over, and you must maximize them to keep your engine running, score end-of-phase points, and outpace your opponents.

Still, because you only have one thing to do each turn, individual turns pass quickly. Even with the need to look ahead, the choices feel fairly easy to make. Even when you play with 5 players, the game keeps a fairly brisk pace.

Now, is it Top 50 material, as BoardGameGeek would have you believe? I'd need to play it several more times to be convinced of that. Which leads me back to where I started: I'm sure glad I wasn't expecting that good a game when I first played it. But I would say it merits at least a B+, and maybe better. (I'll see if my opinion rises as I play it more.) With every turn coming down to just three possible actions (or playing a new bird), I do wonder how the strategy will hold up over repeated play. But only time will tell.

From what I hear, Wingspan is tough to get your hands on. The publishers failed to anticipate demand and printed a short first run. (Some people online theorize this was done intentionally to create buzz; you decide.) But if you can pick up a copy from somewhere (at a regular price), you might want to consider it.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Atomic? Wait.

I think of Charlize Theron primarily as a dramatic actress. But the truth is she's an incredibly versatile star who has appeared in comedies and action movies just as often as "serious" material. A recent example was 2017's Atomic Blonde.

Set in Berlin at the fall of the Wall in 1989, Atomic Blonde is the story of a spy sent to retrieve a list of double agents about to be exposed. It's kinda-sorta James Bond meets Jason Bourne, by way of John Wick. But of course, those progenitors I named are all male-dominated franchises. In centering on a woman, Atomic Blonde is simultaneously none of those things even as it's very much all of those things.

Unfortunately, I'm not sure that Atomic Blonde really uses the best parts of the things it's borrowing from. Like John Wick, this movie wants the action to be the major draw. It's an odd blend of over-the-top antics and gritty realism, and the plot really doesn't matter except in how it gets you from one action scene to the next. But, unlike John Wick, Atomic Blonde has a lot of plot. Like, way too much. There are too many characters, too many double-crosses, too many questions about just what is going on. The story isn't getting out of the way for the action as much as it should.

Like a classic James Bond movie, Atomic Blonde wants to spin an elaborate web of governments working against each other -- schemes on top of machinations on top of conspiracies. But in setting the action at the fall of the Berlin Wall -- essentially, at the close of the Cold War -- it feels like none of what we're watching really matters. The entire game, at least these rules for it, is about to change. Yet the plot of this movie really isn't about that change, it's about a bunch of people playing the game the way they always have.

Like a Jason Bourne movie... well, this may be the lift that Atomic Blonde gets most right. In Charlize Theron, this movie has found a star who can deliver both the dramatic goods and the powerful punches. The main character of Lorraine Broughton is not personality-free like John Wick, nor too suave to be totally credible in a fight like James Bond. That's the needle Jason Bourne threaded. But the action of the Bourne movies is often filmed haphazardly and edited frenetically -- in part to generate a mood, but also (one suspects) because Damon needed help to look badass. Not Theron. She's a better action star than Matt Damon... and frankly, most men you could name. The action of Atomic Blonde is staged methodically and with a mostly stable camera, so you can appreciate just how much of this she does herself.

One scene in the middle of the movie really showcases this. It's the scene that almost every critic talked about, and it's easy to see why. There's a crazy 10-minute action sequence that is presented with the illusion of being a single, unbroken camera take. Even knowing that it is an illusion doesn't make it feel less impressive. Big summer action movies never look like this. And I mean never. When you get a 2- or 3-minute action scene without cuts, people talk about that. (Daredevil, Children of Men, Oldboy, others.) This sequence is twice as long and more, and sustains itself for the entire duration.

It's also, unfortunately, the only sustained chunk of the movie that I would say is actually good. The rest of the movie leaves you wondering why John Goodman took such a limited role, or laughing at James McAvoy's wild performance. If the rest of the movie had been even half as good as the prolonged action sequence, it might have rocketed to the top of my favorites list. But as it stands, you really can watch just this sequence, not really needing to know anything to enjoy what's best about the movie.

I'm not sure how you grade an awesome 10-minute short film buried inside an unengaging larger package. But for how good that 10 minutes is, and how good Charlize Theron is, I think I'll maybe call it a C+. Atomic Blonde is, more than anything, a movie of wasted potential.

Friday, June 21, 2019

A Brief Dispatch

From a confluence of a few different places, I was recently encouraged to check out the work of science fiction writer John Scalzi. I've added one of his full length novels to my reading list, but I've already had a chance to enjoy one of his shorter tales in audiobook form: The Dispatcher.

The Dispatcher posits an alternate world in which 99.9% of all murdered people are instantly restored to life and somehow teleported back to their homes, healed of recent injuries, and with full knowledge of everything that happened to them. This state of reality has given rise to an unusual profession, that of the titular Dispatcher, a person with a professional license to murder. Undergoing a risky surgery? Insurance will put a dispatcher in the room in case of complication, to kill you and spirit you home. Want to take "fight club" to the next level? Beat your opponent literally to death, with little chance of consequence.

But there is that one in a thousand chance that someone murdered doesn't come back.

John Scalzi sets up this clever world, and then puts the character of Tony Valdez into a twisted story that cuts to the heart of the premise. It's a story that's part mystery, part science fiction, and it explores both those aspects well. It's a classic science fiction construction: "if X is true, then what Y would follow?" The tale avoids just enough roads it might have gone down to keep you guessing about what will happen next, while exploring enough aspects of the premise to leave you satisfied.

The audiobook version of the story that I enjoyed was read by actor Zachary Quinto. He was a solid narrator, perhaps more effective voicing some characters than others, but overall good at fleshing out the pictures painted with Scalzi's words. It was a perfect selection for a road trip -- and that's how my husband and I used it, for our driving outside of Portland during our May trip.

It would be hard to say much more without giving it all away, what with the story taking less than three hours to listen to. Suffice it to say, I enjoyed it and would recommend it. I give The Dispatcher an A-. I was intrigued both in this tale in particular, and to learn what other tales John Scalzi has written. I'll definitely be trying another book from him.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

DS9 Flashback: Second Skin

In all incarnations of Star Trek, putting the regular actors in atypical alien makeup was a reliable gimmick for a fun story -- from the original series' "The Enterprise Incident" to The Next Generation's "Face of the Enemy," plus many other good episodes. But Deep Space Nine found a compelling new take on this with "Second Skin."

Kira is abducted by Cardassians and taken to their homeworld... but it's only the beginning of her horror. She awakens having been altered to appear Cardassian, and then is told she is Cardassian. All her memories, her sense of self, are implanted. The truth, according to a Cardassian intelligence agent named Entek, is that "Kira" is a persona given to a Cardassian sleeper spy. Now she's been retrieved to report all she's learned while embedded aboard Deep Space Nine. Unwilling to accept this story, Kira's only hope may be the Cardassian who claims to be her father.

Writer Robert Hewitt Wolfe was well aware of Star Trek's other "alien disguise" episodes, and conceived this story to be something different. He wanted a regular character to actually become an alien. Specifically, his original concept was to reveal that Miles O'Brien had been killed and replaced by a Cardassian sleeper agent two decades earlier -- that every moment we've ever seen of O'Brien, we were really watching this unknowing imposter. His idea hit an insurmountable hurdle when he couldn't explain how O'Brien had fathered an entirely human daughter, Molly.

Wolfe then turned to Kira, another character who would be equally horrified to learn of a secret Cardassian origin. And the way Wolfe wanted to leave the story, it would never be truly resolved whether Kira was really Cardassian or Bajoran. It wouldn't matter, he thought. That was the message: you are your actions, not your genetics. Through gradual rewrites, though, this element was taken out of the story.

What remained, however, was still a great episode. Like "Duet" before it, this is a story that really forces Kira to reckon with the race that oppressed her people -- and to learn that there are actually noble and compassionate Cardassians. It's a more personal lesson here; in "Duet," Aamin Marritza was doing the honorable thing for his people, while here, Tekeny Ghemor shows kindness specifically to Kira. He shows the genuine love of an adoptive father, and she is truly taken aback that this level of emotion is even possible in a Cardassian.

Nana Visitor gives an amazing performance. She tracks Kira's emotional unraveling every step of the way. When Kira is defiantly giving false information to her "handler," Entek, we see that she's projecting more confidence than she actually feels. When she confronts her own dead body, we see her struggle to maintain her sense of identity, hurling accusations of trickery by hologram or cloning. Ultimately, we see everything stripped away as she cowers in a corner of the screen, muttering "I don't know" in response to every question she's asked.

The performance is even more impressive when you know that Nana Visitor is claustrophobic, and was fighting through that sensation throughout her long hours in the uncomfortable Cardassian makeup. Reportedly, she was so desperate to get out of the makeup on one day of filming that, even though the shots that director Les Landau wanted weren't complete, she began ripping off the makeup with her own hands, insisting they'd have to finish the next day. That's how good Visitor is in this episode -- she shows us all these layers of Kira, both surface and hidden, all without giving us even a hint of how she herself was really feeling.

It's also a strong episode for Garak. The character is now playing with the fact that people know he was a spy. In talking about the thrill of traveling to alien worlds, he mentions "earning their trust" as an enjoyable part. (That monologue is also clever exposition to remind us that in his exile, he's not supposed to leave the station.) He uses his knowledge to get a rescue party to Cardassia. And lest we think he's gone too soft, he kills his rival Entek in cold blood. Also, speaking of claustrophobia, we get a hint that Garak suffers from it when he talks about the cramped Defiant quarters; this character trait would be picked up on in a later season.

Other observations:
  • This is also a subtly strong episode for Sisko. In his calculating extortion of Garak, we see that he's willing to bend or break the rules in certain situations. (Odo's smile also tells us he approves of Sisko's choice.)
  • The theme of clashing truths is peppered throughout the episode. Dax, Kira, and Quark discuss whether an experience in the holosuite is as good as one in the real world. The Defiant crew tries technological trickery to pass the ship off as a freighter. Odo gets behind his adversaries by assuming the form of a bag that Sisko casually throws into a room as he enters.
  • Actor Lawrence Pressman, who plays Ghemor, is a busy working actor. I think at the time, I may have known him best from Doogie Howser, M.D. But his list of credits is long. He'd even be back at the end of this season of Deep Space Nine, playing a completely different character.
  • It seems like Les Landau did get all the shots he wanted, claustrophobia or no. There are some noticeably great compositions here, including a sharp focus on a speechless Kira as Entek and Ghemor argue out of focus behind her, and the moment when Kira smashes her mirrored reflection.
  • One tactic Entek uses to sell the story of Kira's Cardassian origins is to reveal information he claims was implanted in her mind. Kira is sure she's never told anyone the story, yet Entek does know it. How?
When the material is strong, and Kira is the main character, you can count on Nana Visitor to deliver an excellent episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. "Second Skin" is no exception. I give it an A-.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Night at the Wunderbar

Last night, I saw Eddie Izzard perform here in Denver on his stand-up tour, Wunderbar. It's been a long globe-hopping tour he's performed in German, French, and English, and he's now beginning to wrap up in anticipation of a run for public office for the U.K. If he wins, this could be his last comedy tour for some time.

This is the third time I've seen him, and I confess to being a touch disappointed in the previous two sets -- not because he didn't have some good material. He did. But his recorded performances of Dress to Kill and Glorious were so amazingly funny that they set too high a bar for expectations. This time, I tried to keep that bar at a more reasonable level.

With politics on his mind, you might expect this to be a highly political set. Fortunately, such moments were sparse (and mostly front-loaded in the first five minutes). I do agree with his political views (so far as I know them), but I found it less enjoyable when one of his previous tours leaned heavily into material about them. Basically: the world can be depressing enough right now... can you just make me laugh instead? This batch was more along those lines.

It was also a lot of material. He played two full acts by himself, without an opener, for a grand total of nearly two hours (including the encore). He touched on literally everything, from the Big Bang to "last Thursday." Especially fun segments focused on the behavior of eons-old monkeys, what dogs would say if we could understand them, and the origin stories of superheroes. He also closed with an extended riff on the Lord of the Rings that had some good moments.

Overall, it seemed like stronger material than the previous times I've seen Eddie Izzard in person. Unfortunately, though, it was also the worst sound quality of any time I've seen him. I don't generally find his accent too difficult to follow, but last night, I truly could not understand somewhere between 10-20% of what he said. Same goes for the people I went went, and even for strangers sitting around me (who remarked on the issue during the intermission).

This was a particularly bad situation, given the nature of Izzard and his material. Some of what he said was deliberately mumbled for comedic effect, or actually in a foreign language. But then, some of it was neither of those things... it was just too quiet to hear, or spoken too quickly, or swallowed up in bad reverb of sounds smacking around the space. As much as I was laughing otherwise, I felt like I was missing some really good moments for failure to understand them. I found myself in the regrettable position of wishing maybe I'd stayed home so I could turn on the closed captioning. (Not that he's releasing this tour in such a format, but you get the sentiment.)

I feel as though the performance might have been something like a B+, and the best material I've seen Izzard deliver in person. But the issue of understanding really dragged down the night for me in a significant way -- I'd say the experience overall was a B-. Though perhaps, if he is indeed about to embark on a long career in politics, the night will grow in my memory. I'll be able to say I was there for his final (?) tour.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Bear -- Necessity

Back when 2017 wrapped up, there was a movie I kept seeing on various critics' lists as one of the best of the year: Brigsby Bear. But it was never in contention for any major awards, wasn't generally buzzed about in social media, and no one I know mentioned seeing it. I filed it away as something I might get to some day. Recently, "some day" came around.

Brigsby Bear is a sweet movie springing from what sounds like a horrific premise. A man named James is rescued from the bunker where he's lived his entire life with his "parents" -- who turn out to have been his abductors. For two decades, they've raised James in isolation from the world, creating the only entertainment he was allowed to see: a low-budget "TV show" of their creation, called Brisgby Bear. When James struggles to assimilate back into the real world, Brigsby Bear becomes the lifeline he clings to. He wants to make a movie to continue the story and show the world that his upbringing was actually full of joy and happiness.

This is a far-out premise that presents a tough needle to thread. You could go super dark and heavy with it, diving into issues of abuse and torment. You could play it for total comedy, as a fish-out-of-water tale about a young man-child fresh out of the bubble. Brisgby Bear charts its own middle course, walking a surprisingly touching and sentimental tightrope. There are moments of humor, without undercutting the seriousness of the situation. There's real drama, without the movie being dragged down with heaviness. There's emotion, without the tone ever turning too earnest or saccharine.

You can engage with Brigsby Bear on a purely nostalgic level. Much of the movie captures the feeling of young kids getting together to make their own movie with handmade props. But there are also deeper messages you can find in the movie if you choose to look. For example: a statement that family can help you through your problems even when you can't understand them yourself. Or the notion that people are only guarded and suspicious because they're coached to expect this in others; meet someone you know is coming at you without artifice or agenda, and you'll be free to drop your guard too.

The lead character of James is played by Kyle Mooney (of Saturday Night Live). He gives a great performance, though the cast is really excellent throughout. The more recognizable faces in the ensemble include Mark Hamill, Greg Kinnear, and Matt Walsh, but there's also great work from Ryan Simpkins as James' sister, and Jorge Lendeborg Jr. as his first true friend outside of captivity.

I was entertained and moved by Brigsby Bear. I give it an A-, and a belated slot on my Top 10 List of movies from 2017. I'm glad I made the time for it, and I wish it had been hyped more so that I might have found it sooner.

Monday, June 17, 2019

The Other Thing

The latest episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (back after a week off) provided a lot of the answers I'd been looking for so far this season. It was also a reasonably entertaining hour.

Captured by Sarge, May learns more about what he's doing on Earth and what the team is truly up against. Meanwhile, in space, Fitz's rescue team is captured by a Chronicom fleet. They're the last survivors of the destruction of their world, and have big plans for their prisoners.

It's a tricky thing, plotting a serialized television story. If you think of the whole thing as a novel, it's not at all unusual for the true shape of the plot not to come together until the end of the "first act." With this season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., this was the fifth episode of a 13-episode season, more or less a third of the way into the story, so it's not that odd to withhold answers until now. On the other hand, though, this season has been running more than a month, and leaving us largely in the dark that whole time. So it was really nice to finally learn the outline of this season's conflict: "shrikes" have come to destroy the planet, Sarge is here trying to stop them once and for all.

The episode wasn't just about connecting dots of the plot, though. The running flashbacks of May's final moments in Tahiti with the real Phil Coulson were a nice element woven throughout to add a more personal and emotional element. Also, they gave Ming-Na Wen something deeper to do than just perform fight choreography. (Though, of course, she still got to do that -- and was great at it, as always.) The scenes between Coulson and May -- and between Sarge and May -- were a highlight of the hour. It was exceptionally clever how the episode's title was spoken twice, by two different Clark Gregg characters, each time with two very different meanings.

I was less swept up in the spacebound story line, though it too had its moments. Agents Davis and Piper still feel a long way from being fully fleshed out characters, but the rivalry between them is a lot of fun. They have at least reached the point where they serve a part in a story that can't just be filled by any random one-off characters you'd drop in there.

I was also glad that this part of the story ended this week with most of the characters returning to Earth. I don't think the show has benefited so far this season from keeping the characters in separate narrative silos, unable to interact with each other. That hasn't been completely resolved yet, but bringing Daisy (and Davis and Piper) back home feels like it will help.

The continued development of Dr. Benson was also a nice element. Too often, characters in these sorts of fantastical stories take too much in stride things that are too amazing. They don't react as a real person would... or maybe they get one slack-jawed moment, and then snap right into the groove. Seeing Benson really live in how out of his element he is in all this was a welcome change of pace. Also nice, the way they casually worked in that he's gay and mourning the loss of his husband. I do like how more TV shows are realizing that it's this easy to get LGBT characters into a story without upsetting other things they want to accomplish. (Sure, the ultimate "prize" is more central, more heroic representation. But this is nice too.)

Now that it's easier to wrap my head around the story this season is telling, I'm beginning to be more engaged. I give this episode a B.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Factory Approved

Coming out of The Last Defender, my friends and I were on a bit of a high. We don't do escape rooms as often as most of us would probably like. And we'd just missed out on a success by one puzzle. So as six of us were carpooling back home, a conversation about other escape rooms somehow first turned into "there's a newer one nearby" and then into "we're going there, right now."

Escape Factory is set up in an industrial complex in Lakewood. It's not the slick and elaborately produced sort of place that Denver Escape Room (ironically, in Thornton) or EscapeWorks Denver is. In fact, we'd learn from talking with the man at the counter: it's one guy's particular dream (or, at least, entertained whim). Designed and built entirely by this one person, and on this occasion operated by him too, it's a noticeably smaller operation. After being spoiled by the sets we've seen at some other escape rooms, this could have been a bit of a letdown. Fortunately, this guy knows what he's doing when it comes to the puzzle design.

We just walked in, asking if he had any rooms available right then we could jump into. Appropriately, the one room he did have was about... being in a bunker and trying to prevent nuclear annihilation. An opportunity to prove ourselves after what had just happened!

As I mentioned, the puzzle design was clever enough. There was an actual laptop in the room with a password you had to "hack" to gain access to files. There were also the expected combination locks (though a bit more naturally integrated, story-wise, than normal). Logic puzzles, observation puzzles... the usual spread. And they were laid out in a non-linear fashion -- once again, that's the special sauce that allows any group of four or more to do an escape room while giving room for everyone to contribute.

The room did have a "found props" and "hand built" feeling, and part of that was that there wasn't much scenery. There weren't really any red herrings, decorative details you didn't actually need for any particular puzzle. Still, we had a lot of fun with it. Of course, it helped that we solved the room -- in a record time, apparently.

Escape Factory isn't the best escape room we've been to. But there's a good foundation there. The owner is building out a new room even now. Hopefully, that's a good sign that business has been good for him. And perhaps with experience and success, he'll be able to construct a more convincing environment to match his intriguing puzzles. I'd certainly be willing to go back and check the place out again.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

DS9 Flashback: Equilibrium

A writer's inspiration can come from some unexpected places. So it was for the season three episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, "Equilibrium." In this case, though, it didn't really pan out.

Jadzia Dax is being troubled by an elusive memory of a strange melody. Soon, odd visions escalate into terrible nightmares. When Dr. Bashir is unable to cure her, Sisko decides to take Dax to the Trill homeworld to see what the Symbiosis Commission can do for her. But they may be unwilling to help, as the core problem plaguing Dax may have to do with a secret they're trying to protect.

This episode was spawned when executive producer Michael Piller saw a magic show by Jeff Magnus McBride. Piller was taken by a particular routine in which McBride would remove a seemingly endless number of masks, only to reveal more hiding beneath. A mutual friend, Christopher Teague, was hired by Piller to pitch a Star Trek episode involving this routine. The result, a tale of a traveling circus visiting the station (with a murderer in its midst), was immediately rejected. But there was the idea of magic and the masks, bought and paid for, needing something to be made of it.

Staff writer René Echevarria kept the "murderer" tidbit of the original piece and proposed a story focused on Odo and involving a series of disturbing dreams. When the tale still refused to come together, a different staff writer, Ronald D. Moore, suggested that perhaps the masks were a good metaphor for the Trill species, and that the story should be centered around Dax.

Though the writers had finally hit on the final shape of the episode, the finished product would still reflect the troubled creation. It's not exactly that you watch it and know that you're seeing a mountain made out of a molehill -- an entire story built around a single magic trick. It's that the story doesn't quite work. The last half is particularly dry, a half-baked mystery centered on Sisko and Bashir. The gathering of clues is dull, and involves a lot of characters shoveling exposition at the heroes in emotionless performances.

The Trill coverup here, that any of them is capable of being joined with a symbiont and not just a select few, doesn't make much sense. For starters, the first time we ever saw a Trill, it was joining with Commander Riker (at least temporarily), suggesting joining isn't actually that difficult at all. Any one specific accident or odd circumstance might be rare, but it's impossible to believe that over time, there wouldn't have been enough of them for the Trill secret to have gotten out long ago. The reason for the secrecy feels overstated too: if people knew, everyone would want a symbiont. Really? Everyone would be champing at the bit to have their personality subverted by a parasite whose life society regards more highly than yours? I suppose as long as demand exceeds supply, the premise works. Still, it seems a secret impossible to keep.

There are moments in the episode that do work, mostly in the first half, and mostly thanks to the heavy lifting done by the actors. Terry Farrell gets some fun and different material to play here, spewing harsh venom at her friends, and showing a childlike fear of returning to the Commission on her homeworld. But when the show yet again sidelines Dax in a story that's supposed to be about Dax (after "Dax" and "Invasive Procedures"), it begins to falter.

There are some good moments for other main characters sprinkled throughout the episode. Sisko's pure joy in cooking is infectious, and Rene Auberjonois' take on how Odo would become fascinated with stirring a bowl is quite funny. Nana Visitor has a great moment in which Kira jokes with Dax... until suddenly realizing Dax isn't joking. There's also a nice arc for Bashir, who finally gets to be something other than a horndog around Dax -- he comforts her as a friend when she confesses a fear of doctors.

But the guest cast isn't rising to the level of the main cast, and the back half of the episode is increasingly reliant on them. The "wacky, socially awkward" Trill Guardian is a dull cliche. The leader protecting the secret about Trill joining is flat and one-note. And the man playing Joran Dax? He's Jeff Magnus McBride, the magician whose act spawned this whole episode in the first place. He isn't really an actor, and it shows in his performance.

Other observations:
  • We're back on the Defiant for the first time since the series premiere, and getting to see and appreciate it a bit more. The bunks in the quarters are tiny, like on an aircraft carrier. The hallways are similarly inspired -- not quite that narrow, but noticeably more compact than on, say, the Enterprise.
  • Decades before Shazam was invented, they're totally using the idea of it in this episode to identify the piece of music Dax keeps humming.
  • It's odd, for an episode in which music plays a key role, how little music there actually is in the episode. Another element that makes the back half so dry is that there's very little score to accompany the lengthy scenes of exposition.
  • Here, Joran is presented more like a troubled youth who snaps in one bad moment. Later on, Dax's past host would be reimagined more as a raging psychopath -- a more stark and intriguing thing to put in her back story.
"Equilibrium" is the first clunker of season three. It's not truly bad, but it is very uneven. I give the episode a C. If the Dax back story introduced here hadn't been picked up on in subsequent episodes, I think it would be all but forgotten in the series overall.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Rocket -- Solid?

This past weekend, I went to see Rocketman, the new biopic on the life of Elton John. Some have compared it to last year's Bohemian Rhapsody -- and that's a reasonable comparison, since both were directed by Dexter Fletcher (Fletcher being the person brought in to finish Rhapsody after Bryan Singer flaked / was fired). I can't offer such comparisons myself, though; I've yet to see Bohemian Rhapsody. From what I've heard, though, I think a more apt comparison might be to Across the Universe. Specifically, the part about repurposing existing rock hits to craft a musical with its own narrative, not that part where I really didn't like Across the Universe. Still, I am very much of a divided mind about Rocketman.

Normally, I don't go for a film that flaunts style over substance. However, I usually reserve that quibble for a film that pursues style to the exclusion of substance, and that's not Rocketman. Yet it certainly is full of style that's very compelling... and substance that's considerably less so. From a narrative standpoint, you could scarcely conceive of an "artist biopic" more paint-by-numbers than this one. The early genius, the rise to fame, the fall from grace, the struggle to rise again. The arc is as familiar as they come. The reductive throughline that the hero is, deep down, just a needy child who needs to be loved. The character is from the most basic stock. It reportedly took almost two decades to get this movie made, and looking purely at its story, I can see why: it's a trope sandwich.

Yet the movie is quite slick and very entertaining throughout, thanks to its concept of being a fully produced musical comprised of Elton John hits. Most of the musical moments in the film are not recreating famous performances by the musician, they're fantastical stagings of numbers in heightened settings. From a whizbang opening that shows Elton as precocious child belting out "The Bitch Is Back," to the sober triumph of marching out of rehab to "I'm Still Standing," the movie inevitably finds the right song to establish the right emotional tone. There are even a few moments throughout the film where it transcends simple cleverness and brushes against something quite profound. (At the core, you can probably credit Bernie Taupin's lyrics for that.)

Dexter Fletcher makes some ambitious directorial choices throughout. "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting" is the most elaborate number of the movie, and is presented with a massive group of backup dancers in a series of impressively long takes (cheated together to give the impression of an even longer one). Camera placement and smart sound design are used to convey how Elton John's first performance at the Troubadour was a transcendent experience for all. There are, quite simply, a lot of great set pieces made of the different songs.

It's a solid cast throughout, including Jamie Bell, Bryce Dallas Howard, Richard Madden, and more. But of course, the star must carry it all or it wouldn't work. Taron Egerton is more than capable of doing so as Elton John. He acts, he sings, he dances... the classic triple threat. It's a great performance, and subtly even more effective knowing that the man he's playing is alive and heavily involved in the production to potentially critique the performance.

I can almost get swept up enough in the movie to give it sky high marks. But ultimately, in those long stretches between the songs, the movie lags. That rote, predictable, and not terribly interesting story line reasserts itself. It's a story you'd heard countless times before. The parts between, though effervescent enough to make it all entertaining, aren't quite long-lasting enough to keep you there.

I'd say Rocketman works out somewhere around a B. If you like Elton John's music, it's absolutely worth seeing. If biopics aren't your thing, you should probably skip it. If you're on this fence, it's probably one to wait for on streaming at a later date.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Super Nova

I've written before about a number of "escape room in a box" products, one-use board games that try to replicate the experience of going to an escape room. In a sense, that experience was brought full circle this past Saturday night when my friends and I went to Denver Escape Room to play Nova.

Nova was purportedly being offered to the public for the first time the night we went. We were led not to a constructed room, but to a large space in the back of their building, where a series of tables were set up in an almost classroom sort of space. Each table had its own series of boxes and items (and a spread of snacks -- the only thing we were allowed to touch before the event began).

It seemed as though Nova may have been a preexisting game they've run before as a corporate team-building exercise. Five different teams (of 4 to 6 players), each at their own table, were given the same scenario -- a sudden accident has knocked our spaceship off course and damaged it. We needed to restore functions to the ship, determine our location, then reach the planet of our original mission, transport to its surface, and locate the Macguffin we were there for in the first place.

Nova was very much like an escape room in a box. But it was a big, expensive box. As you worked your way through puzzles and reported answers to the game monitors, they'd hand over still more sealed plastic tubs full of all kinds of new components. The game lasted well over an hour (and was meant to), filled with a wide variety of clever puzzles and many well-produced props fancier than any you'd actually get from a boxed board game. (Well... you could put these components in a boxed board game, but it would be a very expensive game.)

The suspicion that this was a large team-building event kind of game came from the nature of many of the puzzles. Each of the five tables had pieces of information that all other tables actually needed to reach solutions. Fully half of the puzzles had you get up from your own table and start making rounds of the room, gathering information you needed. The instructions before play were specific on this -- while you could hide your solutions to puzzles (as this was, nominally, a competition), you were required to share any background information with everyone who came by to ask.

Our group of five was working at our best that night. Everyone contributed at various points, and the game was very well designed to allow for this. There was not only a good variety of puzzles, but multiple puzzles were often delivered at the same moment, making it easy to divide the work.

At an hour and 22 minutes in, my group was the first to complete the game -- and we really had a blast with it. It certainly would have scratched my itch for an escape room, had we not already booked our tickets for The Last Defender the next day. Improbably, this event actually cost more than The Last Defender, though. Not that we felt we hadn't gotten our money's worth; Nova's breadth of puzzles and slickly produced components certainly made it an experience we enjoyed, and I'm very glad we did it. But at the same time, I could understand if it continued to be a game they only occasionally offer to the public, focusing instead on their fully-staged escape rooms.

This was a great event for junkies like us who can't get enough, but others may prefer a more conventional escape room experience rather than seeking this one out. That said, if you've never been to Denver Escape Room, it would be well worth going -- they're the best we've found in the area so far.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Last, But Not Least

My friends and I went a little escape room crazy this past weekend, hitting three different experiences between Saturday and Sunday. It was a combination of things we'd planned well in advance, and more short notice and spontaneous opportunities. We put some in the mix because we weren't sure just how "escape room" vs. "escape room adjacent" the activities would be.

I'm going to start with the middle of our three -- it's the one we had possibly the most questions about going in, and it's also the one on a timetable (for any of my readers who might be curious themselves). The Last Defender is being presented through someone you wouldn't think of when you think "escape room," the Denver Center Theater Company. Originally presented in Chicago, the experience has been brought here to Denver to run through late July.

The description of the event on the Denver Center web site makes it clear that the story of The Last Defender involves being in a missile bunker during a doomsday scenario set in the 1980s. You know, WarGames. It's also clear there will be puzzles to solve and games to play. It sure sounds like an escape room -- and indeed, neither the first nor the last escape room I've done using this theme for its setting. (There's your hint about my third escape room experience this weekend.) What wasn't clear is just how much this might be like a piece of theater. How much story would there be? Would there be actors?

If you want to go in with as many unanswered questions as we had, then here's your nutshell review: it was great! Go book it now. Do it!

For those sticking around for a little more info, here's what we learned in doing it: The Last Defender isn't really theater at all. It's a full-fledged escape room. What's more, it's the largest one I've ever done, supporting more players than any other room I've encountered, and built with great materials and production values.

The Last Defender supports 16 players at one time. Indeed, it requires at least 8 for them to run it. And this isn't one of those rooms that say they'll take a large number but is ultimately so narrow and linear that people wind up standing around watching other people. A constant stream of non-linear puzzles really makes it possible for everyone to be active -- working solo, in pairs, or in small or large groups to solve puzzles all throughout a large space.

As all the best escape rooms do, there are puzzles requiring a variety of skills -- physical, deductive, mathematical, pattern-matching, and more. Communication is required; you have to be willing to yell out what you're thinking to the whole group. You have to divide and conquer, throw in and help where you can, and be very active.

There are two small nods to this being more "theater" than escape room. One is a series of videos triggered throughout the experience, projected on a large screen to advance the plot. (Your countdown clock pauses while the videos play, so watching them doesn't count against you.) The theatrical element is in the way clues are delivered. There are "actors" in the space with you, dressed unobtrusively and never speaking. But through pantomime, they guide players who get stuck, and provide moments of encouragement.

The unique strength of The Last Defender is also its only real weakness, in my book: because it takes up to 16 players, you can't have it all to yourself. My group of friends always likes to plan together to book a room, to try to avoid being thrown in with strangers. Most of us just aren't social that way. But unless you can come up with 15 friends who all want to do an escape room together, you won't have The Last Defender to yourself. Depending on how you are with strangers, and what random people you're thrown in with, that might be a bummer.

On the other hand, The Last Defender is so sprawling, with so many puzzles contained inside, that you could easily do it more than once. When I played, I felt like I only got to personally experience around a third of the "content" in the room. Also.... sadly.... we did not save the day. We literally had one puzzle left to solve when our time expired. And they did not tell us afterward what we were missing. Come back and do it again, they encouraged.

The Last Defender was a grade A, top-notch escape room. Maybe a "minus" tacked on for me wishing I could have just had it to me and my friends alone. (But hey, that's maybe on me and not the room.) If you're a fan of escape rooms, you should absolutely go do this one. And you have until July 28 to do so.

Friday, June 07, 2019

DS9 Flashback: The House of Quark

With Star Trek: The Next Generation finished at the start of Deep Space Nine season three, many of the crew members behind the older series transferred to the younger one (or to the soon-to-come Voyager). Deep Space Nine also took full "ownership" of all the established Star Trek history and characters, as Voyager would be headed to the Delta Quadrant and changing the setting entirely. From this combination sprang the quirky (and Quark-y) episode "The House of Quark."

Quark gets into a fight with a hopelessly drunken Klingon and kills him accidentally in self-defense. Hoping to spin the incident into publicity for his business, he claims to have slain the warrior in honorable combat. This soon brings more Klingons calling, including Grilka, the widow of Quark's victim. Grilka demands he take control of her House lest it be dissolved by a political adversary on the Klingon High Council. Meanwhile, Keiko's school has dwindled for lack of students, and she decides to close it down. She's depressed and uncertain about what might come next, and Miles is at a loss to comfort her.

The pitch for this episode came from series editor Tom Benko, who suggested that Quark gain a reputation as a "gunfighter" after killing a Klingon. But the story was reportedly fleshed out by the entire staff working even more collaboratively than usual. Everyone threw ideas into the pot, and the one ultimately assigned to hammer out the script itself was new staff writer Ronald D. Moore. He had been the go-to writer for all things Klingon over on The Next Generation, from the moment his spec script for "The Bonding" got him hired to that series in the first place. Humorously, he said of the Klingons that he "didn't miss them" when coming over to a new series. Yet here he was, back again, writing about them.

This episode has a decidedly lighter take on the Klingons, however. Everything that was taken so very seriously on The Next Generation is treated with a playful irreverence here that totally works. Actor Robert O'Reilly, who played Gowron for years before this, gets a chance at comic relief. (His mangling of Quark's name, "Quirk," is surpassed only by his shock/disdain when getting it right.) The culture clash of Klingons against the Ferengi is often hilarious, from Quark's marriage with a kiss-and-spit to his divorce with a vicious backhand. In between, we get Klingons hopelessly trying to follow along with Quark's financial presentation, and a portrait of at least one Klingon in particular more cunning and ambitious than honorable.

Similarly, one Ferengi in particular is allowed to be different than the established cliche. Quark actually shows both honor and conscience here, though he's accused of having neither. He finds a way to save the day using his cleverness, a way that doesn't betray the character we've come to know. It's a deft handling of Quark that gives him more dimension to play with in the future.

Meanwhile, the episode continues a trend of actually providing good material for the Miles/Keiko relationship. The decision to write Keiko off the show for a while actually came for reasons that had nothing to do with her character or actress Rosalind Chao. The writers wanted to make space to further explore the O'Brien/Bashir relationship, and also were dealing with Colm Meaney's contract, that allowed him some leeway to go take movie roles even as Deep Space Nine was still being filmed.

Instead of making Keiko a shrewish obstacle as she so often had been on The Next Generation, here she has a relatable depression about a sudden loss of career. Miles doesn't seem burdened by her, but rather has the sincere desire of a spouse to do something -- anything -- to relieve the pain of the one he loves. His increasingly large gestures don't address the underlying problem, something that Julian Bashir of all characters wisely points out (in a nice moment adding dimension to his formerly rocky character too).

Other characters play around at the margins of the O'Brien story line, to small but good effect. Sisko gets to speak to the feeling of hurt when your spouse is unhappy and you can't help. Dax gets to joke about how she's dealt with "wife trouble" in former lives. Kira speculates that this sort of relationship drama must just be a "human thing." In all, it's a very honest take on a realistic problem in this science fiction setting.

Other observations:
  • The comedy here isn't just for Klingons. The episode opens with Morn giving a lecherous thumbs up as he's leaving for a hookup. Odo also gets some good laugh lines, poking at the implausibility of Quark's version of how he killed a Klingon.
  • Speaking of that kill, what's the point of all that Klingon armor if their knives can just stab right through them? And the fact that neither redundant Klingon organs nor Bashir's medical abilities can save Kozak's life is a bit of a stretch. Necessary for the story, sure, but a stretch.
  • Even as the Klingons are being depicted in a more humorous way this episode, there's plenty of continuity with the past. The verbal command to activate the transporter is exactly the same as established way back in Star Trek III, and we also get the Klingon ritual of discommendation as established in "Sins of the Father."
  • I mentioned earlier that the idea for this episode came from one of the series' editors. Because of that unusual connection, Tom Benko got to edit his own episode.
Star Trek can be a bit hit-or-miss when it tries comedy, but I think this is one of the hits. I give "The House of Quark" a B+. Plus, bringing the character of Gowron over to Deep Space Nine for the first time, it was something of a milestone for the series too.

Thursday, June 06, 2019

Erase to the Bottom

Movies that attract the notice of the Oscars (and other Hollywood awards) tend to be released in last couple months of the year. But they're often talked up well before that: "These are the films likely to contend at the next Oscars." The manufacturing of the hype begins sometimes even before any critics have seen a movie. And sometimes, the hype is all there is; the movie turns out not to be particularly good. So it was with last year's Boy Erased.

Based on a memoir by Garrard Conley (with the same title), this is the story of young Jared Eamons. After his first year of college, Jared is beginning to realize that he's gay. His parents -- particularly his preacher father -- send him to a program for conversion therapy. The traumatizing experience turns out to be an important one on Jared's particular journey to self-acceptance.

Conversion therapy is, quite simply, repugnant. For teenagers forced into it by their parents, it can cause irreparable emotional damage. Those who seek it voluntarily are not only hurting themselves (though that's bad enough), they're perpetuating a lie that will continue to damage others as long as it persists. This is all very spiky territory for a dramatic movie. Perhaps fearing the thorns, Boy Erased goes for a loose grip that grasps onto very little.

Jared is often too passive a protagonist in this tale. Though flashbacks sprinkled throughout do illuminate his story, he's rarely more than an observer in the present day. The evils of conversion therapy are visited on others more so than Jared, who is kept at a remove from the worst of it. It's hard to tell just how much time is supposed to be passing, or what cumulative effect his experiences are having. He often only sees or hears the aftermath of the most horrible events; the movie shies away from making its audience face too many uncomfortable things. (It's no coincidence that the few scenes when it does are the most potent moments in the movie.)

Perhaps the real issue is that the struggle of wrestling with one's sexuality is a hard thing to capture on film. For one thing, it's deeply personal, different for everyone who goes through it. It's also deeply internal, not easily summed up in any monologue even if a movie tried to have one. I strongly suspect that Garrard Conley's memoir is far more compelling than this adaptation, having more time and space to really get into his experiences.

There is a sense that everyone involved in this film means well, but the script (by star and director Joel Edgerton) has a few structural problems that keep it from being the tale of LGBT empowerment it's meant to be. The most dramatic moment of standing up for what's right is given not to Jared, but to his mother. The most terrible thing to happen to Jared is not the therapy, but being victimized in a college dorm room. It may well be these elements are grounded in truths taken from the original memoir, but they subtly shift the focus to people other than Jared, and things other than self-acceptance.

Lucas Hedges does give a strong performance. And Nicole Kidman does make the most of her role as his mother. Beyond that, the most standout member of the cast is Flea -- who stands out for the wrong reason here. ("Wait... is that Flea?") Russell Crowe and Joel Edgerton coast on archetypes, and Cherry Jones, though excellent, is in the film far too briefly.

There are moments that work, but they're rare enough that the film feels long. It's not "bad." Instead, the problem is more that it's boring. I give Boy Erased a C. Perhaps I expected too much.

Wednesday, June 05, 2019

Code Yellow

The latest episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. showed us that last season's quirky new addition, Deke, was not a one-and-done character. He's still part of the mix, and has been up to no good in the past year.

Aiming to put his knowledge of both the future and S.H.I.E.L.D. technology to use, Deke Shaw has been leading a tech company, trying to "innovate" his way to riches. But when "not Coulson" shows up at his office to kill him for unknown reasons, the covert agent who has been watching Deke has to call for the rescue squad. Meanwhile, back at base, a parasite has gotten loose and is threatening the life of Keller -- and there may be nothing Yo-Yo or Dr. Benson can do to save him.

I did find Deke a fun character to have around in season 5, and I'm probably glad overall to have him back on the show for the new season. That said, the thing that was fun about him was how different he was from the other characters -- specifically how his different energy played off the rest of the cast. Here, he's carrying an episode essentially by himself, and it's a bit too much. Without one of the more grounded characters paired with him, Deke felt pretty broad. Maybe he can be used more seriously and effectively as the center of a story, but that wasn't the story being told here.

That said, perhaps the most broad aspect of his story this week was one that I started out kind of hating, but then gradually wore me down to laughter by the end of the episode. That was his boba-loving girlfriend Sequoia. Played by series writer Maurissa Tancharoen, the character was a classic running joke -- keep repeating it, and it eventually does become funny. By the time we reached the tag scene, a montage of her social media postings, I had a perpetual smile.

The B-plot of the episode focused loosely around the love triangle of Mack, Yo-Yo, and Keller. And brought that story line to an end sooner than I would have imagined. On the one hand, I'm surprised they went to the trouble of setting it all up for so few episodes. (They weren't even in one of the episodes so far this year, which took place all off Earth.) On the other hand, this is planned as only a 13-episode season... and the series had already moved into tight 7 to 8 episode story arcs a while ago. So I guess "set 'em up, known 'em down" isn't all that strange for the series -- don't linger too long on any one thing. But really, I hadn't reached the point yet where I was even believing or invested in this new Yo-Yo relationship. I guess if the aftermath for her is played right in the coming episodes, it may prove to have been worth it.

I would say that this season's slow-but-steady improvement from episode to episode was stalled in this hour. But it wasn't a backslide either. I give "Code Yellow" a B-.

Tuesday, June 04, 2019

Port of Departure

Our fourth day in Portland was our last. Our flight back home was in the late afternoon, though, giving us a little more time to see and do more. Staying in town, we wandered to a few various places.

We'd heard about a Festival of Flowers that was going on in the Pioneer Courthouse Square and decided to start there. That turned out to be a thing really meant for locals more than tourists. A small stone amphitheater in the middle of the city had been decorated with an array of potted flowers (which, after a few weeks on display, would be sold off). It took only a minute to circle the entire thing and see it all.

The next stop took quite a bit more time: Powell's City of Books. Portland's largest book store, it just happened to be in the area and seemed like a fun thing to check out. It was as big as you'd imagine, and then some. Longtime Denver locals might think back to the original five-floor location of the Tattered Cover in Cherry Creek, but I'm pretty sure Powell's was larger still. It was hard to tell, as Powell's was laid out in a labyrinthine split-level configuration that seemed to just keep going and going and going, each room as big as the biggest chain bookstore you've ever seen. We wandered around, enjoying the "olden days" pleasure of book browsing.

Noon was rolling around, and with it the opening of a few more local breweries to try before we headed home. First, we hit up Breakside Brewery. Besides its normal variety of beers, they were offering up a 5-beer taster flight of Salted Caramel Stouts. Most were bourbon barrel aged, with an array of different flavors (like chocolate and vanilla), making for a tasty little flight.

We also walked over to the Lucky Labrador Beer Hall that was just two blocks away. It wasn't really in full swing yet. It was a series of long tables set up inside a large converted garage; the place felt like it could be a local college hangout, though I have no idea if a college was actually nearby. Their list of beers weren't really grabbing us (and we were, no surprise, starting to feel "beered out"), so we only stayed for a little bit.

To change things up, our last stop was at Portland Cider House. Like Cider Bite, it was a place with dozens of taps of nothing but cider. Unlike Cider Bite, about half the taps were varieties of their own creation. We enjoyed a small batch of samples, took in the super quirky art on the walls (this one was titled "What Happened to the Dinosaurs"), and just sort of relaxed. We'd had a good time, but were ready to be home.

From there, it was a quick stop at the gas station (one more chance to experience Oregon's silly "you can't pump your own gas" law) and then on to the airport. An uneventful flight home concluded a fun getaway -- completing my "collection" of trips to all the west coast states. It was a lovely place to spend a long weekend.

Monday, June 03, 2019

After the Falls

Day three of our trip to Portland started with another drive out of the city. Another drive back to the east, in fact -- but the weather was better on this day for being outdoors, and that's what we had planned. We went to Multnomah Falls.

Though I'd never heard of the falls before researching things to do in the Portland area, it's purportedly the most-visited natural site in the Pacific Northwest, and the highest waterfall in the state. Indeed, it was fairly crowded when we visited. We arrived just early enough to snag one of the last available parking spots along the interstate, about a quarter-mile away. Already, the road in front of the lodge right near the falls had a half-mile parade of circling cars that didn't subside the entire time we were there.

The falls themselves are quite beautiful, with the century-old bridge in front of them a nice accent for your pictures. You do pretty much have to elbow through other tourists for your few seconds on the bridge, but it still felt worth the effort. There are also miles of hiking trails around Multnomah Falls, and we had plans to hit one of them.

The hike we'd picked beforehand turned out to be closed off -- Oneonta Gorge, a short trek through water, has been closed for many months now. But at the lodge, someone directed us to a trail with two key waypoints: Lemmons Viewpoint, an overlook with a gorgeous view of the Columbia River, and Fairy Falls, a much smaller but much less-visited waterfall up in the hills. The three mile round trip hike took a while (and my legs were definitely sore that night and the next morning), but was a nice change of pace from what we'd been doing so far.

After the hike, we drove back into Portland and stopped at Von Ebert Brewing. This was located right by a golf course (like the winery from the day before; must be an Oregon thing). It turned out not to be our favorite spot, and the beer we'd most wanted to sample had blown just before we got there... but they did have an interesting Irish Cream themed stout, and a solid Hefeweizen.

Next stop was Cider Bite, which was definitely a highlight of the tasting part of the trip. Denver does have some delicious ciders, but the Pacific Northwest has more. Way more. Enough that a place like this can exist: a taproom that, instead of offering dozens of beers from dozens of places, does that for cider. We went through two different flights of delicious ciders, and easily would have stuck around for more were we not so tired from the earlier hike. We ultimately had to regroup for a while back at our hotel before heading back out for dinner and a last couple of stops.

We did get back out for two more beer stops later in the evening, and both were solid. The first, Great Notion Brewing, had been recommended to us a couple days earlier by the helpful locals. It had the widest selection of any brewery we visited, including a Blueberry Muffin that tasted exactly as promised, and an equally delicious (but different) Moon Pie Imperial Stout. Finally, we headed over to Cascade Brewing, renowned for its sour beers. A small taster flight was all we could handle by this point -- we do love sour beers, but there's only so much of them the stomach will allow.

This was our last full day in Portland, but our flight the next day was late in the afternoon. That gave us time to squeeze in a few more stops...